Executive Presence: “Playing the Game” or “Selling Out?”

I was recently talking to a young healthcare executive when the conversation led to Executive Presence (EP). Nicole (not her real name), a petite minority woman explained how throughout her young career, she has been advised by professors, mentors and bosses to “improve my Executive Presence.” She has been repeatedly told to “look and act the part” and to work on coming across as more polished. While she understood the importance of how others perceived her, she confessed that she didn’t want to lose her authentic personality:

“I am not your typical executive, I don’t look like the other executives. Sometimes I wonder: why have they thought I can do this job? And I think it is because of my ability to build trust, I am accountable, I build relationships with physicians. [My boss] told me you have to work on your EP and that is important. But I don’t believe it is required in all situations. Sometimes you have to be authentic, there is something important about being human. I set expectations, I am honest, and I give feedback from a place of love and care. People appreciate that and want that from me.”

Nicole’s insightful comments triggered some deep thoughts and reflections. In our Healthcare Administration Program, we encourage students to “work on their Executive Presence” and give them specific and periodic feedback on how to send the right signals to other professionals and future employers. But how do we balance that with advising them to stay authentic and be human?

In her book “Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success”, leadership and talent expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains that Executive Presence is not a measure of performance but rather a measure of image. She defines it in terms of three pillars: gravitas (how you act); communication (how you talk); and appearance (how you look). The ability to act gracefully and confidently in tough situations, to communicate clearly and concisely, and to look professional at all times are important signals that we send to others that we have what it takes. While others need time to assess our gravitas and communication, appearance is a critical first filter. Research shows that it only takes 250 milliseconds for others to size up our competence, likability, and trustworthiness- based simply on our physical appearance, grooming and polish.

Authenticity, on the other hand, is considered one of the crucial aspects of effective leadership. A few years ago, Harvard Professor Bill George wrote the book “Authentic Leadership” in which he argued that authentic leaders pursue their purpose with passion, practice solid values, lead with their hearts as well as their heads, and establish connected relationships. Another important aspect of authenticity is the ability to “be yourself” and to be vulnerable in front of others-such as admitting that you don’t know or that you made a mistake.

Can leaders balance those two seemingly contradictory aspects of leadership: acting, communicating and looking like a polished executive while also being themselves? I recently coached a newly-appointed Vice President of Medical Affairs from the Upper Midwest who found himself struggling with this balance. Dr. Khatri (not his real name) was a successful internist who recently transitioned into a leadership role. He prided himself on having a “quirky personality” and others viewed him as incredibly funny. While his jokes were celebrated in the clinical units, they were not that appreciated in the executive suite. His boss, the CEO of the hospital, wanted him to “reduce the joking around” and she constantly encouraged him to act more “polished and professional.” When I asked him about that in one of our coaching conversations, he countered:

“Honestly, I consciously want to appear awkward, I don’t want to appear too polished. I’ve seen other executives who are too polished and smooth. Sometimes that makes people not believe them. I want to have my own style of communication. People know me, they trust me, I have a lot of credibility, I don’t want my authenticity to suffer. I could be more professional by improvising less and not joking as much. But I believe that my authenticity comes from my actions, from what I do, not what I say.”

Dr. Khatri understood what made him different and trustworthy, and didn’t want to lose that in the pursuit of more Executive Presence. Assimilation into a leadership role can be seen as either “playing the game” or as “selling out”, and for him, the danger of the latter was clear.

While Sylvia Anne Hewlett suggests that “only you can determine what constitutes a compromise to your authenticity as opposed to just a compromise,” here are some tips that may help:

–       Know your non-negotiables: what are you willing to do to improve your executive presence and where do you draw the line and say “no, this is not worth it.”

–       Balance competence with vulnerability: it is important to know your stuff cold and to appear competent and intelligent. But it is also necessary to drop your guard sometimes and admit to not knowing or to making a mistake. Vulnerability leads to others seeing us as human and can therefore trust us more.

–       Differentiate yourself by what makes you different: If being honest and caring, or having an unorthodox personality is what attracts others to you, embrace that difference and make sure you use it for your advantage.

Amer Kaissi
About the author

Amer is a sought-after coach, professor, speaker, and author of "Intangibles: The Unexpected Traits of High-Performing Healthcare Leaders."
Begin the Conversation
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.